Houston allowed 615 yards rushing in its first three games. The Texans have gotten a lot stingier since then.
In the last three games, Houston surrendered just 135 rushing yards. On Sunday, the Texans held NFL rushing leader Cedric Benson to a season-low 44 yards in a 28-17 win over Cincinnati.
Now the Texans will try and keep it up against San Francisco and running back Frank Gore as they seek consecutive wins for the first time this year.
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The Texans had the NFL’s worst run defense through three games before their turnaround. Still, it was easy to discount the improvement as a product of facing poor rushing teams in Oakland and Arizona.
The performance against Benson was different. He entered the game averaging almost 100 yards a game, but was held to 2.8 yards a carry. He was stopped for no gain or a loss three times and his longest run, which he scored on, was 10 yards.
The performance capped the lowest three-game rushing total in Texans‘ history.
“We have come a long way,” linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “When we can limit the league’s leading rusher the way we did, it was a good effort.”
Coach Gary Kubiak said the players haven’t really changed anything since the embarrassing start, they’re just doing things better.
“I think we’ve eliminated some mistakes and assignment issues and just been more sound in what we’re doing and it’s adding up to more plays,” he said.
The group has benefited from the improvement of rookie linebacker Brian Cushing and cornerback Dunta Robinson. Both have been solid all year, but took a couple of games to work out the kinks after missing training camp. Robinson sat out in a contract holdout and Cushing had a knee injury.
“We knew with the lineup we had defensively on opening day, starting Cushing, starting Dunta, that there was a big risk from them not going through camp,” Kubiak said. “But for us to get to where we needed to be down the road, we knew those guys needed to be in there.”
Cushing leads all rookies with 48 tackles. He had the best game of his young career against Cincinnati with nine tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception near the goal line that halted the Bengals‘ last drive.
“He’s a guy that when you get in crunch time he tends to make even more plays,” Kubiak said. “So he’s playing like a veteran, like a four- or five-year player now.”
Houston’s improvement against the run has coincided with the addition of safety Bernard Pollard to the unit. Pollard has started the last three games after he was signed in late September following his release from Kansas City.
“His presence in just being here for about a month has obviously added a new dimension to our defense,” Kubiak said. “He’s played very well.”
Handling the run has helped the team dominate the second half of the last three games. Houston hasn’t allowed a point after halftime since Sept. 27 and has given up 161 yards combined in those quarters.
Benson managed 10 yards rushing on four carries after in the second half on Sunday. Houston shut down the Bengals completely in the third quarter, allowing only six total yards.
Houston’s run defense will be tested again on Sunday with a well-rested and healthy Gore, who hasn’t played in almost a month after injuring his right ankle on his first carry against Minnesota Sept. 27.
He was almost unstoppable in his last full game when he ran for 207 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Seahawks.
“We just have to be ourselves and just go out there and play and try to keep the chains moving and get points,” Gore said of facing Houston’s improved defense. “If we do that, we should have a great chance of winning. That’s all we have to do.”